There’s already evidence this is happening. In late July, Ugandan army Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the peacekeepers, announced the completion of a ‘short tactical offensive operation’ meant to safeguard food distribution. That operation turned into a major attack that routed Al Shabab troops, resulting in the TFG's first big territorial gains in several years.
But Al Shabab isn’t defeated. The group still controls much of southern Somalia, and has vowed to launch hit-and-run attacks inside Mogadishu. The ground war rages on.
US support for the peacekeepers and the TFG represents the proxy portion of Washington’s offshore balancing in Somalia. Naval patrols, Special Forces raids and strikes by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles round out the strategy. At first, however, the main air and sea initiatives weren’t directly tied to the proxy fight on the ground.
In parallel with its support for Ethiopia's attack on Somalia, the Pentagon in 2006 was in the process of standing up an East African counter-terrorism complex anchored by secret bases reportedly in Ethiopia and Kenya. From there, US Special Forces and armed drones struck at terrorist targets in Somalia, occasionally in cooperation with naval forces.
In 2007, Special Operations Command aircraft launched at least two helicopter raids on al-Qaeda and Al Shabab operatives in Somalia. On no fewer than three occasions in 2007 and 2008, commandos spotted targets for US warships firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at Somali targets. Some of the same warships help make up Combined Task Force 150, a US-led international naval force assigned to intercept arms shipments bound for Al Shabab and al-Qaeda in Somalia.
SOCOM helicopters infiltrating Somalia killed al-Qaeda bomber Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan on Sept. 14, 2009. Two, possibly three, airstrikes on Somali terror targets between 2009 and June of this year have been attributed to American UAVs, at least one of which has crashed in Somalia. Many other attacks have surely gone unreported. None has resulted in acknowledged US casualties.
While US support for the TFG has resulted in the killing of at least one high-profile terrorist –Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, gunned down by a TFG guard at a Mogadishu checkpoint on June 7 –most of the direct counter-terrorism work in Somalia is executed by offshore US forces.
That now includes warships previously dedicated solely to chasing pirates. When the pirates allied with Al Shabab this year, the counter-piracy naval patrols became a de facto part of the counter-terrorism campaign. With that unification of once-separate efforts, offshore balancing for Somalia finally, and fully, coalesced.
The Piracy-Terrorism Nexus
With the collapse of the Somali government and, by extension, Somalia's ability to police its waters, in the late 1990s trawlers from industrialized nations began operating illegally in Somalia's rich tuna fisheries. Armed Somali fishermen began boarding vessels in their waters, demanding ‘fees.’ It was a small step for these self-declared ‘coast guards’ to begin seizing entire vessels and their crews and demanding multi-million-dollar ransoms.
By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, thousands of pirates were capturing hundreds of commercial vessels every year. As they grew more successful, pirates evolved into well-organized, deeply-financed international criminal operations with informants and financiers scattered across the globe.
The US Navy led an international military response. NATO began deploying one of its Standing Maritime Groups to the Indian Ocean, usually with an American warship attached. In 2009, the Pentagon established Combined Task Force 151, a predominantly US counter-piracy formation that also includes foreign warships. The European Union has its own, similar force. All the task forces share intelligence and logistics.
By 2009, there were some three dozen warships from a dozen nations patrolling the Indian Ocean for pirates. And while ‘piracy has its roots on land,’ according to Martin Murphy, an independent naval analyst, for a while it was possible to view US-led naval operations as separate from the offshore counter-terrorism.
Indeed, the ICU, Al Shabab and other Somali Islamic groups had cracked down on piracy in their territories, declaring it un-Islamic and a threat to law and order. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis, an Al Shabab propagandist, called for the ‘termination of…Somali piracy’ in a 2009 article. Despite the claims of many US analysts and officials, before 2011 there were no proven links between Al Shabab and pirates. If anything, the two groups were at odds.
That began to change this year.
Possibly under pressure from US counter-finance efforts that have cut off electronic money transfers, Al Shabab is reportedly broke, and desperate for new sources of income. Piracy is currently Somalia’s biggest industry, in revenue terms. It was perhaps only a matter of time before Al Shabab sacrificed its Islamic principles and sought ties with the pirates.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported in July that Al Shabab has begun running protection for pirates based in the southern town of Kismayu. ‘Detained pirates tell us that some level of cooperation with Al Shabab is necessary to run a criminal enterprise,’ UNODC’s Alan Cole told Reuters. Reuters’ investigation found that Al Shabab’s ‘marine office’ received payments from pirates totalling more than $1 million between February and May.
That means that preventing pirate attacks is vital to defeating Al Shabab. And beating Al Shabab is vital to ending the Somali terror threat. Once-separate military efforts – one each targeting Al Shabab, terrorists and pirates – have now, in effect, become one comprehensive offshore balancing campaign.
The Downside of Hands-Off Warfare
Make no mistake: The United States is at war in Somalia, and will likely only deepen its involvement as the present famine worsens. But that won’t mean large troop deployments as in 1992. Today’s intervention is unlike anything that was possible 19 years ago.
And that means risks unlike anything experienced 19 years ago. Today, it’s hard to imagine that many American service members could die carrying out the US Somalia strategy. However, this hands-off approach to warfare leaves Washington vulnerable to exploitation.
Just as Ethiopia in a sense hijacked US counter-terrorism efforts when it pushed for a joint invasion of Somalia, it’s apparent that some of the United States’ other partners in the country are taking advantage of the money and other resources Washington is pouring into Somalia.
Pelton’s Somalia Report expertly detailed widespread corruption among AU peacekeepers in Mogadishu. The under-paid peacekeepers routinely sell US-supplied weapons and ammo to intermediaries who then sell it to Al Shabab, allegedly providing the majority of Al Shabab’s arms, in some categories. ‘The UN’s own records confirm this,’ Pelton writes. ‘An RPG captured from Al Shabab was analysed and determined to have been delivered by DynCorp to the Ministry of Defense in Uganda.’
Just as the Ethiopian invasion provoked Al Shabab’s backlash and the rise of Somali-American terrorists, US arms shipments sustain both sides in the fighting, quite possibly making the Somalia conflict worse and compelling greater US involvement down the road.
It’s politically easier to throw good money after bad in Somalia-style indirect interventions than it is to send more Americans to die in ill-conceived direct wars – although, of course, critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might disagree. Offshore interventions could, then, defy easy resolution even when they’re going badly.
After the United States’ spectacular defeat in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, the US Congress successfully pressured the Clinton Administration into ending the US intervention after only two years. Today, no one expects a quick or easy victory in Somalia – or an end to American efforts anytime soon, despite the lack of clear progress in fundamentally solving Somalia’s problems.
Sure, it’s relatively bloodless – so much so that few Americans appreciate that their country is at war in Somalia. But this is one US conflict that seems like it might never end. As an exercise in offshore balancing, US assistance for Libyan rebels might end up seeming deceptively easy, inexpensive and, at just six months, shockingly brief.
Washington’s offshore balancing campaign in Somalia, by contrast, is already five years old and, despite recent progress, could continue for years to come. If proxy armies and air and sea power are the basic tenets of future US interventions in Asia, then Americans must gird themselves for wars that, while relatively bloodless for the United States, could drag on at least as long as the boots-on-the-ground interventions of the previous decade – and that could end up being essentially hijacked by self-interested allies, further prolonging them.
The apparent lesson from Libya is that offshore balancing is easy for Washington. Somalia reminds us that it’s not always so – that even wars fought mostly by ships, planes, Special Forces and foreign proxies are still wars. They’re ugly, complicated and risky. Policymakers and voters would do well to remember that as US attention shifts to the tense Asia-Pacific region and its many emerging conflicts.